"Get the f*ck outta here!"
It took me a moment to realize the cop was yelling at me. I was parked on my mobility scooter in front of Boston's Trinity Church in Copley Square. I was disoriented. A block to the west of me a cloud of smoke rose above Boylston Street and the bleachers erected for the finish of the Boston Marathon. I could hear screaming. I could still hear the sound of explosions ringing in my ears. I could still feel the sounds of explosion ricocheting off my bones...
"Go on, move!" The cop yelled again. And then I saw why: the swarm of people rushing toward me, terror contorting their faces.
Because of my location on the far side of the square (and my short stature), I was spared a view of the carnage. I saw some blood -- spatters on the shirts of a few who had tended to the victims. But I saw no actual bodies or body parts. Was this is a good thing? I am a hospital chaplain. Some of my patients have been veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and part of me thinks I should know what they know.
But the images of blood and anguish I saw later on the Internet... the persistent ringing in my ears... I was awake all night. No! Experiential knowledge, at the sake of the suffering innocent, is not worth it. It is not a good thing...
I have lived in Boston for almost four years now and this was the first time I had decided to be a spectator of the marathon, and to partake in the revelry of Patriots' Day. In truth, I did not really want to go downtown. When you stand butt-high to the average citizen, crowds tend to be an annoyance. But there were two of my people running in the race and I wanted to greet them at the finish line. It was to be a monumental day: the first time in race history that two people with dwarfism would not only be qualified to run the race, but also finish it. Or so I hoped. I am the Senior Vice President of Little People of America, the nation's largest support and advocacy group for people with dwarfism, and it was a proud moment for our organization. I felt a duty to be there in solidarity. As it turned out, it was the solidarity of strangers, Good Samaritans, that bore me through a time of crisis.
"Come on, we gotcha."
I looked up over my shoulder. A big, beefy Italian guy and his lady friend, a small-yet-stout Scandinavian-looking woman motioned me to follow. They were both wearing Red Sox gear and I guessed them to be in their mid-30s. They had thick New England accents, the blue collar kind. We started moving south, cater-corner to the scene of the crime. The big guy lead the charge and the woman fell in behind. They gently, but firmly, blocked the wave of humanity cresting around me. My personal bodyguards.
"Where you headed?" asked my lead blocker.
"Back to Cambridge, I came in on the T." We pushed our way to the Copley Square T-stop.
A police officer waved us away, "The Green Line is out of service."
"What about Back Bay, the commuter train?" I asked. The cop shook his head. We headed over to the rail platform just in case. Two transit police blocked the entrance.
"What now?" asked the woman, "How much power you got in that thing?" She pointed at my scooter.
"It's got a good charge."
"South Station," she declared.
We angled north and east, toward Chinatown. The roads were jammed with traffic, cars moving agonizingly slow, and then impossibly having to make way for the frequent emergency vehicles rushing to and from the bomb site. Sirens and helicopters echoed from all directions, and people were shouting from their cars; at each other, into their cell phones, and at anyone who looked official. The sidewalks were almost as bad, but at least everyone seemed to be headed in the same direction: away. My bodyguards kept me in the flow. Finally, we saw South Station, a main arterial hub for the commuter trains, subways and buses serving the entire metro area. People were streaming in as police and transit workers eyed the crowd.
Once inside, my lead looked at me and said, "You good? We need to see if we can get a train." They were headed to southern Massachusetts.
"Yeah, I'm good." I needed to catch the Red Line to Cambridge, two levels down. I told them, "Thanks for all your help." I tried to get their names but I could not hear their responses over the loud chatter in the station.
I made my way toward the subway platform and got stuck in a line that was long, hot and sweaty. Fleetingly, I thought if another bomb was to be placed anywhere, this would be the place. Claustrophobically, I turned around and headed back up to the train station, justifying my actions as an attempt to find my bodyguards, at least to get their names and offer them a drink in the food court. But they were already gone. I decided I would wait out the subway crowd and opened my Kindle to surf the web. I still did not have a clear picture of what happened and the scuttlebutt around me was confusing and conflicting.
When I saw the first picture of a bloody and broken body, I became aware of an acute hunger. It is a strange physiological reaction I have to intense stress and fatality. When my brother died a few years ago, upon hearing the news, I had the urge to devour a steak. Following my first trauma code on my first night shift as a hospital chaplain, I went to the cafeteria and stuffed myself. When my dog died my sophomore year in high school; at my grandmother's funeral; after my undergraduate neighbor committed suicide, I ate like a starving man. Yesterday was no different. I ordered a feast of unhealthy train station food.
But the day was also a day of dark revelation. Transcending the "hunger" of personal loss and individual tragedy, it briefly opened up a window unto a desolate world where far too many people live: in places like Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Mexico, Syria, Columbia, Israel, Yemen, Nigeria -- and a few decades ago, some of my distant relatives in Northern Ireland. It is a world of existential dread, where life is precariously balanced on the timing of zealot's bomb, a madman's trigger finger, an unexpected drone strike... or just pure, dumb luck.
I know America is not as safe as it used to be a generation ago. I know that people, some of them our soldiers and some of them natives, daily face this dread in faraway deserts. But their lives have been sanitized and cataloged by the media -- I could rationally understand the violent statistics of an IED, but I could never imagine it. When the Twin Towers fell, I was three thousand miles away watching the horror unfold on television. Once again, I logically knew the terror that New Yorkers must have felt, but I did not know it intuitively. When Timothy McVeigh parked his truck in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City, I was living large with a kick-ass job and a life defined by parties and the hot tub in my backyard. Shamefully, I barely paid attention to "flyover country." Later, after I married a woman from Oklahoma, whose own sister was wounded in the bombing, I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial. I was moved by a profound sense of the sacred. It was sad and hallowed ground. But I did not feel the dread that arrested the city on April 19, 1995, in spite of my sister-in-law's ongoing pain.
Yesterday, on April 15, 2013, I felt existential dread. I don't know why I felt it so acutely on this particular day. I once survived a near-death experience, when my heart stopped following a surgical accident. I have survived a handful of car wrecks that could have easily turned fatal. I survived a near-drowning and a house fire. I have had a gun pointed at me in an armed robbery. In none of those incidents, however, did I feel what I felt yesterday. I do not know if it was the combination of the visual, physical, and aural: the sound of the explosions, the sonic vibrations in my body, the site of thousands of people running chaotically with fearful countenances. Sirens, smoke, screams, shouts, and the press of bodies -- the after-effects of a totally unexpected and arbitrary event. One moment there is normality, frivolity, and joy. The next, terror, pain and chaos.
I keep telling myself that it is important to "Keep calm and carry on," as the old wartime slogan goes. "Don't let the terrorist win." I know this is true, and I know the game of the aggressor is to instill existential dread into the psyche of our lives. But 24 hours removed from the event (in which I have not slept), I can't help but think of those poor victims: the young boy who lost his life while waiting for his father to cross the finish line; the "dozens" of people who "lost one or more limbs" according to various hospital reports. Today, there are Coast Guard helicopters flying low along The Charles River and National Guardsmen are patrolling all the subway stops. Police cars are out in force. And everywhere, people are speaking in slightly somber and hushed tones.
We will power through this. Boston, as President Obama said, is a tough and resilient city. These are the times that draw Americans together, across political, religious, and ethnic lines. But perhaps I remain rattled not because of what I experienced, or what will happen to my city and its wounded. Maybe it is because I finally understand what so much of the world contends with on a daily basis: that existential dread is woven into the fabric of human existence in so many parts of the globe. In my scramble for security, surrounded by a moving mass of horrified humanity, and protected by the kindness of strangers, I was given a brief glimpse of how the other half lives.
And I feel powerless to do anything about it.
This was originally posted on BadassChaplain.com.